You are not who I thought you were: Race and ‘The Hunger Games’

by · April 13, 2012

This post was first published at Overland Journal earlier this week. 

In high school my English teacher gave advanced reading to students who were keen, and the first novel was To Kill A Mockingbird. Harper Lee’s book is a story of racism in the American South, as everyone knows, but it also included a salutary lesson about gender for me.

Lee’s narrator is Scout, the daughter of an Alabama lawyer defending a black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman. For quite some time, as I eagerly turned the pages, I assumed that Scout was a he. Whether this is because Scout’s gender was deliberately hidden, or because I was skimming (which I’m sadly only known to do with fiction I impatiently adore), I’m not sure. But when I realised ‘he’ was really a Jean Louise and a ‘she’, I found myself fixated on my own sexist supposition as I was, after all, a feminist-in-training at 14.

It appears that some readers of the young adult novelThe Hunger Games (THG) are having a similar experience upon seeing the recently released movie version. The novel is based in a post-apocalyptic world, where children from 12 districts are randomly chosen to fight to the death in a televised reality game.

Two of the best-loved characters of the trilogy, Rue and Thresh, were ‘revealed’ in the movie to be black. While the author of THG, Suzanne Collins, may not have said specifically the characters were ‘black’, she had been overt about their appearance. Twelve-year-old Rue is introduced on page 45 of the book as having ‘dark brown skin and eyes’, and when Thresh is seen by another character later on he is described as having the ‘same dark skin’ as her. Yet many readers read whiteness into the characters, presumably thinking Collins simply meant they had tans. Or maybe, like me, they had been skimming.

In the last few weeks I’ve read numerous commentaries on the reaction of readers – racist and anti-racist – to the movie’s race ‘revelation’ (see ‘Racist Hunger Games fans are very disappointed’, ‘Rue is black and racism is still an issue’, ‘Why wasn’t The Hunger Games cast as I imagined in my racist reading?!’ and the vlog, ‘Racist Hunger Games fans flee internet!!’). There was also a particularly good article by Anna Holmes in the New Yorker, noting that many readers reacted with hostility when suddenly aware they had read whiteness into the narrative. She discusses how racist outrage of fans on Twitter prompted one Canadian lover of the book to set up hungergamestweets.tumblr. His Tumblr documents the racist comments and subsequent commentary on the issue, including the following tweets:

‘I was pumped about the Hunger Games. Until I learned that a black girl was playing Rue’

‘Sense (sic) when has Rue been a nigger’

‘Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little blonde innocent girl you picture’

‘Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad. #ihatemyself’

‘Why is Rue a little black girl #sticktothebookdude’

‘some ugly little girl with nappy … hair’

The Tumblr went viral, and many of those who wrote such comments have since made their Twitter accounts private or deleted them.

But in her article, it appears Holmes was not only trying to detail the racism of the original tweets (largely sent by teenagers and those in their early twenties) but also trying to demonstrate that even those who read the New Yorker are likely to read whiteness in as well. Holmes crafted her article to not mention the ethnicity of the creator of hungergamestweets, and gave him the pseudonym Adam – with all its white and Christian overtones. She appears to have wanted to highlight how the older and highly educated readers of something like the New Yorker might also illustrate her article title, ‘White Until Proven Black’.

Despite my experience with Scout when I was 14, I also imagined Adam was white until he was ‘revealed’ as ‘of Caribbean descent’ in the penultimate sentence. Similarly was fodderforfantisies, who notes of her reading:

[T]his article just proved to me that I do it. We all do it. This article profiles someone of the pseudonym Adam, the person who created the Hunger Games Tweets Tumblr site. It talks about interviewing him in his office in Toronto. I imagined in the interview in my head. Adam was white. … I defaulted him as white, because I had no indicators to the contrary. It makes me so mad at myself and society that we do these things. I imagined Rue as black because it says she has dark skin in the books, but in this article, with skin color not described, I did not. GUH.

I can only hope for every racist reaction there was another young reader who had the experience I’d had with To Kill A Mockingbird. Where a ‘revelation’ of Rue as black will allow them a window into how racism can work at the most personal level – and even amongst those who consider themselves to be anti-racists.

As Nicole Paulhus says on her blog Hello Giggles:

It is easy to say that people are racist for thinking in this way, but I think the issue is bigger than individual thought process. I think this speaks volumes about where we are in terms of diversity representation in media.

While white faces do dominate much of our media, is this reaction only about the representation of community diversity? In all the coverage I’ve read of THG reactions, little has dealt with racism as more than about the ideas in people’s heads. As Sherry Wolf says, when discussing reaction to the killing of Trayvon Martin, many have:

a politically confused way of talking about race as if it were simply about bad ideas in people’s heads and not conscious structures of oppression kept in place by the 1% in the interests of the 1%.

It seems to me it is only by thinking through the connections of the racism of individuals, overt and covert, to the broader socioeconomic context that we can start to work out how things might change.